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Over the past couple of weeks we have been looking at the importance of the ‘basics’ in life. In this week’s article we will focus on the importance of sleep.Sleep is made up of various different stages: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Non REM sleep is further divided into deep sleep and slow wave sleep. These various different stages occur in approximately 90-minute cycles throughout the night, dictated by our internal circadian rhythm, and managed by the cyclical release of various hormones and neurotransmitters in the body.
Soon after falling asleep at night, we gradually enter the deepest level of sleep, known as slow wave sleep. This is the period when the body carries out growth and repair of all body tissues. The immune system is particularly active during this time, dealing with microbes and abnormal cells. The liver is also busy, removing various toxins from the system. A lack of slow wave sleep leads to impaired immune function, muscle aches and tremors, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The first period of slow wave sleep we experience during the night is the longest. However, this only lasts until around 1.30am, and people who don’t get to bed before midnight are likely to miss out on this important stage of sleep. At around 1.30am our bodies enter a phase of lighter REM sleep. REM sleep is when we may become restless and experience dreams, although these are often forgotten. REM sleep is essential for the development and functioning of the brain, as well as understanding and processing the information we receive during the day. Too little REM sleep leads to developmental abnormalities, behavioural problems and memory loss. While most people will fall back into a deep sleep after a short period of REM sleep, many people may wake up at this point. After another shorter period of slow wave sleep, we enter a longer period of REM sleep at around 3am. Again, this is another common time for people to wake up, and for some people it can be difficult to get back to sleep again as they may feel wide awake.

Although people move between deep sleep and REM sleep several times during the night, the periods of REM sleep become longer as the night progresses, while periods of deep sleep become much shorter, and less deep. The deepest level of sleep (slow wave sleep) is generally only reached in the period before 3 am. Therefore people who habitually go to bed in the early hours of the morning may be missing out on slow wave sleep.

Although sleep is essential for good health, many people experience difficulty in either getting to sleep, or staying asleep for a sufficient period of time. This may be due to excessive consumption of stimulants (such as tea, coffee or fizzy drinks), an inconsistent routine (which confuses the circadian rhythm), a stressful situation, or hormonal changes, such as those which occur during menopause. Many people turn to sleeping tablets when they are experiencing difficulty sleeping, and while these may be helpful for a short period of time, they are highly likely to result in dependency if used long term. Fortunately there are many natural and ways of helping to improve sleep patterns.

First of all, try to keep a regular routine of sleeping and waking. Get up at the same time every day to set your internal body clock, preferably around 7am, and go to bed by 10.30pm every night. Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, and take time to wind down for at least an hour before bed, by dimming the lights and putting on some relaxing music. Try drinking a cup of relaxing herbal tea such as chamomile or lemon balm.

Secretion of melatonin in preparation for sleep begins around 9.30pm, but is easily suppressed in response to bright light, vigorous exercise, stressful situations or stimulating activities. Watching TV or using a computer can also suppress melatonin secretion due to the glare from the screen. Ideally avoid vigorous exercise such as running after 6.30pm. If you usually exercise in the evenings, stick to a more gentle form of exercise such as yoga or tai chi.

There are numerous herbs and supplements, which can help with difficulty sleeping. However, it is important to address the cause of the insomnia, such as reducing stress or balancing hormones. Following a detailed consultation, medical herbalists offer an individually tailored blend of herbs to help with both the causes and the symptoms of insomnia, together with detailed advice about nutrition and supplements to help you sleep more soundly.